Listen to citizens worried about sulfide mining
Apr 1, 2011 Posted by Dawn Merritt
By Kevin Proescholdt and Greg Seitz
The push for a new type of mining in Minnesota – sulfide or non-ferrous mining – has become stronger and stronger recently. While new sulfide mines proposed in northeastern Minnesota may produce a few hundred jobs, they would also threaten our lakes, rivers, and streams with centuries of toxic pollution. Recent actions at the Capitol reduce the chance that this mining will be done right in our state.
Last winter, PolyMet Mining's draft environmental review predicted water contamination from the mine's waste could last for up to 2,000 years, putting at risk the St. Louis River and rivers that flow into it. Similar mine proposals also threaten such iconic Minnesota treasures as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Lake Superior. And in an area only a couple of miles from the BWCAW where a powerful foreign mining company (Antofagasta PLC) is proposing to develop a new mine, the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness recently documented toxic acid mine drainage still leaching from a relatively tiny mining exploration that occurred 37 years ago. Yet the mining industry claims that acid mine drainage can't happen in Minnesota.
This new type of mining, vastly different from Minnesota's traditional iron or taconite mining, releases toxic sulfuric acid and heavy metals that can contaminate everything from fish to wild rice to drinking water. Clean-up of sulfide mines might require treatment for hundreds of years or longer even after the mines close.
For several years, companies proposing new mines in Minnesota have pledged to comply with our state's environmental laws. But today they are seeking to roll back and weaken environmental protections with the help of a willing Legislature. All that talk about "doing it right" and "playing by the rules" seems to have been just that: talk.
Let's connect some of the recent dots:
- Chamber lawsuit over wild rice. In December, the Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit to overturn one of the state's water quality standards designed to protect wild rice. This standard was established with extensive field research by renowned Minnesota ecologist John Moyle to protect wild rice from the sulfate levels that new sulfide mines will likely exceed. The lawsuit is casting confusion and doubt at the Legislature about the legitimacy of this standard in order to allow mining companies to avoid paying to capture this pollution.
- Fast-track legislation. Bills that strip protections for wild rice and weaken environmental review have raced through the Legislature. A new law has weakened environmental protections in a number of ways, including allowing companies, rather than public agencies, to write their own environmental impact statements, and exempting the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board from complying with environmental laws. Other legislation that passed the House and the Senate this week allows mines to discharge sulfate pollution at levels known to harm wild rice.
- Chip Cravaack's closed-door meetings. Recently-elected Congressman Chip Cravaack has held a closed-door meeting with PolyMet officials and supporters of its mine – but did not include citizens, business and other interests concerned about mining pollution. The meeting ended with a pledge by state Rep. Tom Rukavina to weaken or eliminate the wild rice sulfate standard.
All Minnesotans support the development of new jobs as we struggle out of the recession. But many Minnesotans believe that this new mining can't be done without terrible damage to our lakes and streams. While the mining industry and its allies are racing to ease environmental hurdles to begin new sulfide mining, we should insist that these new mines and the jobs they bring don't ruin our clean water and public health with toxic pollution.
We encourage lawmakers to listen to all Minnesotans and not cause terrible damage to our lakes and streams, including Minnesota's beloved Boundary Waters and Lake Superior.
Kevin Proescholdt directs the Wilderness and Public Lands Program in St. Paul for the Izaak Walton League of America. Greg Seitz is the communications director for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minneapolis.
This opinion article was originally published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.